How did you last meet a friend? Chances are, you were introduced through another friend or, they’ve been in your life so long, you can’t even remember how they ended up there.
For our little ones, though, making friends is a relatively new concept and one that requires a bit of encouragement. Introductions, cooperation — there’s a lot of nuance to making friends that we take for granted as adults. Luckily, we have our own wealth of experience to draw upon as our children create their own interpersonal spheres and, with a little thought, we can help them navigate the ins and outs of friendship.
“Hi, my name is Petra. What’s yours?” It’s a phrase that made me tear up the first time my daughter spoke it to greet another child, but it’s not something she would have dreamed up on her own. Introductions require anyone to step out of their comfort zone, so before she tried it out on the playground, we practiced at home “meeting” her puppets who were feeling shy. Up until that point, her “friends” were really just my friends’ kids — no intros required — so learning how to welcome others into her life was the first step toward building relationships independent of me.
Meeting new people requires new situations, and since our kiddos are housebound without their personal chauffeurs, it’s on us parents to get them out and exploring the world. Toddler classes, early preschool, playgroups and even daycares are good resources since children can get to know their group over time, but drop-in activities such as library programming and playground fun also help them flex their growing social muscles. During those first forays into friendship, I found it vital to be present for reassurance until Petra had a chance to bond with a trusted caregiver who could take over the responsibility of keeping the interactions positive.
And what happens when the play isn’t positive? Well, until kids get the knack of cooperation, parents or caregivers take on the roles of mediator and arbiter, settling arguments by helping our kids to understand what one another is feeling by labeling emotions, guiding their conversation along, and working alongside them to find a fair compromise. For youngsters, sharing is tough, not getting exactly what they want is frustrating, and having to let go of an expectation is upsetting, so they need our help to see from the other child’s perspective. That’s empathy and it’s a big idea, but one that will serve them well their entire life as they form and maintain relationships. Empathy is something I’m always reminding myself to model continually, verbally acknowledging my children’s feelings and my own even when they’re in the midst of screaming at me. It’s super easy. (I’m winking.)
The good news is that once the how-to of friendships is established, oh, do they blossom! I was nervous about putting Petra in preschool at two-and-a-half, but she came home not even a week later talking about her friend, Cordelia. I was Cordelia in our conversations, I knew all of Cordelia’s favourite foods (“she’s not vegetarian”—ha!), and soon Petra was asking Cordelia over. Here’s a remarkable thing about being a parent who encourages early friendships; you will meet other parents with similar ideals! I’ve become friends with many moms of Petra’s friends and I always enjoyed hanging out with Cordelia’s mom, Alyssa, watching the girls play easily together without (much) intervention on our part. It was absolute magic.
Was absolute magic — past tense, because after a year of her and Petra being like sisters, Cordelia moved to Ontario. We had tried to build up to the goodbye with Petra who did not seem to grasp the finality of the situation, but with boxes packed and a new house picked out in Guelph, Cordelia got it. I wondered if their last playdate would be a teary one, but when Alyssa brought Cordi over the day before their move, the girls played as if nothing was changing. Theirs is an easy love with total abandon. At the door when we were waving goodbye, Cordelia came back for one more hug which really pulled the heartstrings of us moms, but then she saw a cracker in Petra’s hand and asked for one of those. Petra ran to get her one, Cordelia said “Thanks, Petra,” and she was off.
This past summer, Petra did camps, played with friends old and new, and introduced herself happily on playgrounds all over town. Still, she plans to visit Cordelia. I’ve learned that once a child understands how to make friends, it’s easy. It’s as simple as exchanging names and saying “Want to play?” But I’ve also learned that despite it being quick, it isn’t trivial.
Seat sale to Ontario, I’m a-comin’ for ya.